A group of 23 devotees led by Pandit Ram Hardowar left New York City on Tuesday February 9th, 2010 to observe and celebrate Maha Shiva Ratri and visit other holy sites in Bharat Desh (India).  The trip began with some unforeseen circumstances. Due to an approaching snow storm in New York Area, the group left on Tuesday, February 9th instead of Wednesday, giving them additional time to celebrate Maha Shiv Ratri in India. It seemed as if Lord Shiva himself wanted this group of devotees to come earlier and join in a more elaborate celebration.

Departing from the city of Mumbai in great spirits and immense devotion, expressed with the singing of beautiful bhajans to Lord Shiva, the group journeyed to Tryamabakeshwar Jyotir Lingam in Nasik. Even though the journey took five hours, no one felt the passing of time, because their minds were full of expectation of reaching the holy city of Nasik. Nasik is well known as one of the four centers where Kumba Mela is observed every twelve years.

Prior to the visit to Tryambakeshwar Lingam, the group ventured to Ram Gath and Panchavati, one of the places Lord Rama spent time with Mother Sita and the location where Mother Sita was abducted. Most fortunate for the group, that evening Pt. Ram took the group to perhaps the greatest highlight of the trip, Tryambakeswar Lingam, where the group spends Maha Shiva Ratri. With thousands of others, the group chanted “Om Namah Shivaya” at the location where Lord Shiva dwells.

We continued our journey to Aurangabad, and made stops to offer dyanam (charity) to the remote villages of rural India. Pt. Ram and the group met elders of a small village and school and gave contributions on behalf of all of the devotees of Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.

Arriving on a hot day at the Grishneshwar Jyotir Lingam, we proceeded to offer our prasad. Most notably, all males visiting this lingam had to take off their shirts. The group (including Pt. Ram) did not hesitate, and quickly all of the men’s shirts were off.  We all sat together and offered prayers to Lord Shiva, after which Pt. Ram told us stories of the origin of Grishneshwar Jyotir Lingam.

We could not resist travelling to the famous Ellora-Ajanta caves. One devotee in the group insisted that the Ellora Caves can be the eighth wonder of the world and wanted to retire in mediation at this location. Our journey continued to the city of Pune, with more stories on the bus as Pt. Ram enlightened with scriptural messages and their relevance to the places we have visited.
We arrived at Pune on the day prior to a terrorist bomb blast. No one in the group seemed concerned for their security as we were so occupied with thoughts of the places we had visited and the thoughts of being in our holy land. The journey to Bhima Shankar Jyotir Lingam was most picturesque. Because of its remote location and less frequent visitors, we were allowed inside to see the Lingam, and the group was able to sit and offer prayers. Pandit Ram led the group in chanting and prayers until we were filled with satisfaction. We also visited a Ram Mandir on location and the group joined with prayers and chants to Lord Rama. En route we made seva stops, and again Pt. Ram joined with locals in a remote village. He made a financial contribution towards their mandir building funds.

We returned to Mumbai and prepared for our next leg of the pilgrimage. The anticipation of visiting Varanasi was apparent as Pt. Ram continued to tell us stories about how Kashi Vishwanath Shambhu came to be. Many in the group could not wait to take the early morning boat ride. When we arrived at Varanasi, Pt. Ram took us on an early visit to the Kaal Bhairav temple, as it was customary to gain his permission before visiting Kashi Vishwanath Jyotir Lingam.

The early morning boat ride still lives in the memory of all and can never be erased. We offered dhar to Surya Bhagwan and chanted prayers as we cruised along the Ganges in Banaras. Again, the group was blessed not only to visit a fourth Jyotir Lingam, but to be in one of the holiest places in all of India. Pt. Ram enlightened us with stories of the history of Varanasi, and most of all, he offered prayers for all. The long awaited surprise awaited us when we departed to the spot of Lord Shri Krishna’s divine revelation of the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita to the world, Kurukshetra.
No one could have expected what happened next. Pt. Ram organized a havan for the entire group to participate in on the same place where Lord Krishna spoke to Arjuna. Pt. Ram offered chants and read shlokas from the Bhagwad Gita. We sat under the peepal tree and listened to stories of Lord Shri Krishna. If that was not enough, we also visited Bhramha Sarovar a few miles away. The group continued its journey to the place where Pandit Ram always made it a ritual to visit during all of our mandir trips, Haridwar.

Ganga Maa at Haridwar and Rishikesh has always been the last stop on our mandir pilgrimages, but no one has ever found these visits to be repetitive or boring. Even though the weather was cooler than Mumbai, everyone was eager to take a dip in the holiest of all rivers, Ganga Maa. First, we attended Ganga Maa Aarti and joined with the thousands who were there for Khumba Mela. Pt. Ram reminded us about the significance of Kumbha Mela, and how fortunate the group was to have come at this time of the year when all the Devataas visit Haridwar. The following morning, Pt. Ram conducted havan on the shores of the Ganges with the entire group after we had our bath. We prayed as Surya Bhagwan rose in the east. No one could have imagined the beauty of being at the banks of the Ganges at sunrise offering prayers to Ganga Maa, alongside the large murties of Lord Shiva.

Along with other stops to sacred places and mandirs, Pt. Ram and all devotees who went on previous trips rated this trip as one of the best. The constant message Pt Ram kept reiterating to the group was how lucky they were to be in the holy land of India and to have had the opportunity to visit so many placse within a short period of time. The group could not have been more thankful to Pandit Ram and the Mandir for organizing such a trip, and looks forward for the next pilgrimage trip in 2012.